Whither XG?

Once upon a time, the hardware tone module was king of “desktop music production.” A wide range of options were available from pro-level tone modules to desktop tone generators to ISA/PCI cards. The General MIDI (GM) standard came about in this era because people wanted to have consistent playback across hardware platforms.

Every manufacturer offered one or more modules. Two players — Roland and Yamaha — jumped in big. Each company offered desktop tone modules adhering to their own semi-proprietary extensions of the General MIDI standard. Roland had its GS while Yamaha had its XG.

Then, software plug-ins killed the tone module.

Native, computer-based signal processing became fast enough that hardware tone generation was no longer required.

Roland GS, meanwhile, has gone on relatively hard times. Today, Roland offers two products that are up-front GS: Mobile Studio Canvas and Sound Canvas for iOS. The Mobile Studio Canvas is a pricey little number that streets out at $429 USD. Not exactly cheap. Sound Canvas for iOS is an iOS app supporting Inter-App Audio and Audiobus. Roland claim that the app and its host can act as a tone module through a suitable Core MIDI compatible interface. Mobile Studio Canvas is $19.99 through the Apple App Store.

The Virtual Sound Canvas was a VST- and DXi-compatible, multi-timbral soft synth. Unfortunately, for desktop users, the Roland Virtual Sound Canvas (VSC-MP1) was discontinued.

Yamaha XG is battered, but is still breathing. XG-based hardware tone modules are nearly extinct. (Check ebay…) However, current arrangers from Yamaha offers XG compatibility, even if it’s only the XGlite subset. In fact, XG is the de facto voice architecture on arranger keyboards. Edit a voice on an arranger and you are tweaking XG parameters. Of course, this means that you must have space for an arranger on your desktop. A half-rack 1U tone module is far more compact and desktop-friendly.

“Pro” keyboardists still turn up their noses at GS, XG and arrangers. A large part of this is guilt by association with General MIDI. Beneath it all in Yamaha-land, the synths and the arrangers share hardware technology such as CPUs and tone generation circuits. XG is essentially a wrapper around pro-level samples and tone generation.

XG also lives at the heart of the Yamaha Mobile Music Sequencer (MMS) app. MMS has a software-based XG engine inside. It supports 9 reverb, 4 chorus and 26 variation effects. Yamaha cut down the XGlite sound set to just 42 GM voices plus 42 or so synth voices. In case you’re interested, I’ve documented many of the XG features in MMS here:

Mobile Music Sequencer Reference
Make music with MMS on PSR/TYROS

MMS demonstrates that it’s possible to host XG on an iPad with an ARM processor. Will Yamaha answer Roland’s Sound Canvas for iOS?

Needing an XG-compatible VST soft synth on Windows, I went in search of one and stumbled onto a retro cult. Turns out, there are a whole lot of other people who would like an XG-compatible VSTi on Windows, too.

First, there are enthusiasts who are trying to resurrect the S-YXG50 soft synthesizer on Windows 7 (and earlier). The S-YXG50 uses either a 2MByte or 4MByte wave table, so we’re not talking stellar sound quality. I experimented with S-YXG50 on Windows 7 with no success.

Then, there are enthusiasts who take old daughter boards (DB50XG or DB60XG) and fashion standalone tone modules from them. (Just add a power supply and a MIDI interface.) These daughter boards have a 4MByte wave table. Like XG tone modules, XG daughter boards are scarce as hen’s teeth.

The issue that always rears its head with this old tech is the availability of drivers. You can find the occasional Yamaha-based sound card or SW1000XG, but driver support usually stops with Windows XP (at best).

Finally, another sub-cult has discovered the joys of Yamaha MidRadio. MidRadio is a MIDI player application for Windows 8 (and earlier). It is XGlite compatible with 361 regular voices, 10 drum kits and 2 SFX kits. A few of the regular voices are so-called “panel voices” in the PSR E-series — an added bonus! Wave table size is about 11MBytes. And, guess what? It sounds pretty darned good. Here are links to the list of voices and effects in MidRadio version 7:

List of MidRadio voices and effects

If you try MidRadio, be prepared to use Google translate and be prepared to wade through a Japanese-only user interface.

A few intrepid souls discovered that the MidRadio sound engine (SGP2.DLL) is just a few bricks short of being a VST software instrument (VSTi). They developed a patch which turns the DLL into a VSTi. Yes, the patch works and I can send XG-compliant MIDI from Steinberg Cubase, Ableton Live and VSTHost to SGP2. It plays rather nicely.

In general, I do not recommend this approach. Anytime you download a patch from the Web and execute it, you put the privacy and security of your computer and its information at risk.

Given this enormous red flag, I wish that Yamaha would sell an XG-compatible VSTi for Windows and Mac. There are users waiting for properly a supported, street legal XG plug-in soft synth at a reasonable price. And certainly, we wouldn’t turn down a free one.

Make music with MMS on a PSR

Yamaha Mobile Music Sequencer includes features for Motif, MOX and Tyros5, but did you know that you can create music using MMS on your PSR arranger? Yes, you can!

I’m using MMS with both the Yamaha PSR-E443 and PSR-S950 and I have written up a tutorial on making music with MMS on PSR/Tyros. This article concentrates on set-up, MIDI voice selection and MIDI file export which are aspects not covered by the MMS manual. The tutorial complements the many on-line videos that demonstrate composition and mix down. In particular, I show how to use the full 128 voice General MIDI voice set in the PSR, thereby expanding your sonic palette beyond the limited range of voices built into MMS.

Enjoy and keep on keepin’ on!

More new phrases for MMS

If you enjoyed the last batch of phrases for Yamaha Mobile Music Sequencer, here’s some more! All of the phrases are taken from funky, jazzy styles on the PSR-S950 arranger keyboard.

FunkPoppin ZIP
FunkPopRock ZIP
JazzFunk ZIP
JazzPop ZIP
KoolFunk ZIP

These loops are free and ready for download — 250+ phrases for drum, bass, electric piano, guitar and brass. The phrases are in YMS2 format files. Just copy these files to your iCloud Mobile Music Sequencer directory and you’re ready to go. Under OS X, the iCloud MMS mobile documents directory is:

~/Library/Mobile Documents/XXXX~yamahamusic~mobilemusicseq/Documents

The easiest way to get there in the Finder is to hold down the Option key and select “Library” in the “Go” menu. This will take you directly to your application support library directory. The “XXXX” in the path name above is some crufty identifier generated by OS X and will vary from user to user. Navigate down through the “Mobile Documents” directory until you reach the MMS documents. This is where you should put the YMS2 phrase files.

Also, don’t forget about the Music Gallery where you can find additional MIDI, PSR/Tyros style and MP3 content.

If you want to create your own original MMS phrases from MIDI, check out this tutorial. Once you’ve gone through the process a few times, you’ll be able to translate your own MIDI phrases on autopilot!

MMS as a tool

I’ve got a lot more experience with the Yamaha Mobile Music Sequencer (MMS), so it’s worth passing along an update. I’ve been composing backing tracks for classic soul jazz tunes. If you would like to hear the results, please browse over to the Music Gallery.

MMS is a phrase- and section- oriented composition tool. A song is a sequence of one or more sections and a section is a group of phrases that play together. The phrases follow the section’s chord progression. Thus, it’s easy to pull a section together given a chord progression from a lead sheet and a library of drum, bass, guitar and piano phrases (MIDI loops).

This approach works great for a simple tune like “Memphis Underground.” Memphis Underground is built on a single chord (C7) and simple bass figure that repeats ad infinitum. Just set the chord progression for each section to C7 and stack drum, bass, guitar and electric piano phrases. Vary the arrangement by stacking different phrases in each section and lay down the different sections in the song. I recorded the simple flute part that makes up the head (the main melodic theme) into a phrase of its own. Finally, I recorded solo parts into the MMS song screen because it didn’t make sense to split the solos into separate phrases. Overall, this approach worked out pretty well.

Life got a little more interesting with “Watermelon Man” and “Comin’ Home Baby.” These tunes are 16- and 12-bar blues. It would be great to arrange the songs from short 4-bar phrases and just let the phrases follow the chord progression. However, when fills are placed at the end of a 4-bar phrase, the fills do not always play at the most musically appropriate points in the tune! I resolved this problem by increasing the phrase length to 8 bars. I also recorded the head into a phrase of its own. It’s handy to play back the head while stacking phrases even if you intend to record the head along with the solos in the MMS song tracks. Melodic phrases such as these must be set to by-pass transposition.

Then there are tunes like “Tough Talk” and “Put It Where You Want It.” These tunes are based on one or more musical hooks that are essential to the character of the song. Generic bass or piano phrases just don’t cut it. I had to record phrases to cover the hooks and the head. Now, on-the-fly transposition guided by the section chord progression really starts to fight you! I wound up recording full, chorus-long phrases (all 12-bars), effectively ignoring (defeating) chord transposition by the sequencer. Each section has only one chord (e.g., F7 or C7) which simply determines the key for the tune. The hook phrases must be set for “parallel” transposition.

Put It Where You Want It is a work in progress. This tune is even more complicated to sequence because it has three major sections, each with a distinctive hook and theme. Stay tuned!

Overall workflow with MMS has been good. The Mixdown feature makes it easy to create a WAV file. MIDI (SMF) export is also easy. I’m using iTunes File Sharing to move the WAV and MID files to a PC where I convert the WAV to MP3 and add General MIDI (GM) SysEx and voices to the SMF file. iTunes File Sharing is a lot less hassle than I originally anticipated. The latest version (3.1) of MMS adds Dropbox, but I haven’t updated as yet.

There is one minor recurring problem. The MMS tone generator is a subset of the Yamaha XG standard and includes extended XG drum kits. This is good for musicians who are working on XG-compatible and/or Yamaha instruments because the GM drum kit is quite limited. However, the extended MIDI notes outside of the GM range do not map to the same percussion sounds on non-XG equipment, e.g., Roland Sound Canvas. So, I have had to edit the MIDI file and remap notes to make the drum parts truly General MIDI compatible.

Workflow is essentially in one direction only. I think the software developers see MMS as a mobile sketchpad where a musician jots down ideas that are transferred to and finished on a computer-based DAW. MMS cannot import results from the DAW. So, once you start editing with your DAW (e.g., SONAR or Cubase), you’re committed.

Well, there you have it. The true worth and limitations of a software tool like MMS are only apparent when taking on complicated, real-world problems. I’m still enthusiastic about MMS, but I’m also more knowledgeable and wary of its limitations. The song/section/phrase structure can definitely fight back at times!

Music gallery

If you would like to hear some of my work, please head over to the new music gallery page. The music gallery has MP3 demos, MIDI files and Yamaha Mobile Music Sequence (MMS) project files. Feel free to download the MIDI files and MMS projects. I’ve also posted a few production notes for each track. The production notes describe problems, solutions and tweaks. This is the place to go if you would like to hear MMS applied to something other than EDM!

I just posted two songs — Memphis Underground and Comin’ Home Baby — two good old soul jazz tunes. Both tracks were initially composed using MMS and were exported as Standard MIDI Format (SMF) files. The SMF files were imported into Cakewalk Sonar. General MIDI (GM) instruments were assigned and levels were set in Sonar. I played the files back through a Roland Sound Canvas and then checked playback through Windows Media Player.

While going through this process, I discovered that MMS generates “stripped” SMF files. MMS exports initial program (patch) changes, but does not export channel volume, pan or effect levels. The program changes depend upon the hardware setting on the export page. The “SMF” option produces General MIDI-like program changes while the “MOX” option produces a weird mixture of GM and MOX voices. It looks like MMS tries to pick the MOX voice that most closely resembles the voice used in the MMS part. The MMS manual is not very specific about all of this and you should be prepared to modify patch changes and set levels when tweaking an MMS-generated MIDI file in your DAW/sequencer.

There were also a few fix-ups related to differences between the MMS XG-like sound generator, the Roland Sound Canvas and the General MIDI standard. GM defines only one drum kit with a limited selection of individual percussion instruments. For example, finger snap is not part of the GM standard. Both Yamaha XG and Roland GS (Sound Canvas) implement an extended GM kit. Of course, the extensions are different (!) and finger snap is assigned to different keys. So, you should expect to tweak the drum tracks in the MIDI files for your own sound generator. Roland and Yamaha also define their note numbers differently and bass instruments, in particular, may sound one octave higher or lower. Transpose away and have fun!

Mobile Music Sequencer is here

The Yamaha Mobile Music Sequencer (MMS) is a fun tool for roughing out arrangements. MMS is an iPad app that uses a phrase- and section-oriented approach to building up full arrangements. A lot of rock, pop and dance music is repetitive, so once you have the basic building blocks (phrases), you can create loop-like musical passages (sections) and then combine the sections into songs.

I’ve been working with MMS for a few months now. I’m trying to create jam tracks for some of my favorite old soul jazz tunes like “Memphis Underground” and “Comin’ Home Baby.” The overall work-flow seems to be one way: create a song on your iPad with MMS then export the song to a computer-based sequencer or keyboard workstation for polishing. You cannot directly import a MIDI file into MMS. I have “imported” MIDI tracks by recording them with MMS — not a procedure for the faint of heart or MIDI novice.

By and large, MMS is intuitive and easy to use. The manual covers most of what you need to know in order to create new songs. If you intend to drive an external synthesizer (like the Yamaha MOX or Tyros) with MMS or if you export your songs as a Standard MIDI File, the manual does not cover important features such as the MIDI messages sent by MMS, program change numbers, etc. I’ve posted a page with this kind of helpful information.

Even though Apple has taken great pains to hide iPad files and the file system, musicians like to share their work. At the very least, we need to export and transfer our work to other computer-based tools and keyboards. No way around it, we need files.

Mobile Music Sequencer manipulates and produces four different finds of files.

  1. Individual MMS projects are stored in project files with the .yms1 extension.
  2. Individual phrases are stored in phrase files with the .yms2 extension.
  3. Sections and songs are exported as standard MIDI files (SMF) with the .mid extension.
  4. Mixdowns are exported as WAV audio files with the .wav extension.

When you are working within MMS itself, project and phrase files are transparent; you don’t see them. When you want to share or transfer these things, you need to know about them.

Apple provides two standard means of getting files on and off of your iPad: iTunes File Sharing and iCloud. You can directly access project files, MIDI files and WAV files through iTunes File Sharing. If you want direct access to your phrase files, however, you must have an iCloud account and use iCloud. The MMS manual strongly promotes SoundCloud as the way to access and share your audio files. SoundCloud is purely optional since you can transfer your WAV files from the iPad to your computer through iTunes File Sharing. This is a great relief because a free SoundCloud account is only good for two upload hours and thereafter you need to subscribe. BTW, would someone please explain what an “upload minute” is? I tried SoundCloud and frankly, I don’t need it or want it!

So, how do you use iTunes File Sharing? First, I’m assuming that you have a Mac or PC which syncs with your iPad. I use both Mac and PC and the procedure is the same. Plug in your iPad and let it connect with iTunes. Click to select your iPad device and then click on the “Apps” (pseudo-)button in the button bar for the iPad device. This is the same page that you would use to manage your Apps and home screens. Scroll down to the section titled “File Sharing.” You see two panes: one pane showing Apps and a second pane showing Documents. Select the “Mobile Seq” app and iTunes displays the documents belonging to MMS. Now you can add and save files. As I mentioned before, you have direct access to project files (yms1), MIDI files (mid) and audio files (WAV). iTunes also displays a few internal MMS files with plist, json, etc. extensions. Leave these the heck alone!

Life gets interesting under iCloud. You can publish projects and phrases to iCloud. First off, you need to turn iCloud on using the MMS SETTINGS > SYSTEM > GENERAL tab. Projects and phrases are handled differently.

  • Projects are published through the SETTINGS > FILE page. When iCloud is enabled, a little cloud-like icon is displayed to the far right of each project name. The icon shows the published or not-published status of each project. If a project is unpublished, its icon is grey and shows an upload arrow. Touch the icon to publish the project. The outline of the icon turns bright white after upload, indicating that the project is now published.
  • Phrases are published by saving them with iCloud enabled. You can use either the PHRASE > EDIT > SAVE button or the Save option that appears in the contextual menu for a selected phrase.

Published projects and phrases are accessible to MMS on other mobile devices connected with the same iCloud account. Please note, however, that you cannot access published projects via iTunes File Sharing. That’s right, iTunes file sharing doesn’t even show published project files.

Let’s say that you want to back up your projects and phrases to your Mac or PC from iCloud? Currently, if you’re on a PC, you’re hosed even if you have the iCloud control panel installed on your PC. You cannot transfer files through the control panel; you can only delete them. There are HOW-TO’s on the Web for turning on the iCloud daemon, etc. under Windows, but these techniques involve messing with the registry among other advanced Windows thingies. I’ve done this sort of stuff professionally and don’t really have much appetite for it when I’m not getting paid to futz with Windows.

Fortunately, I have a MacBook Air. Mac OS X has a double-secret directory to hold iCloud documents. First, open the Finder to your user directory. Press and hold the option key and open the Go menu in the menu bar. You will see a menu item called “Library.” If you don’t see “Library,” then you probably aren’t holding down the option key; the user Library directory is normally hidden. Select the “Library” item and the Finder goes to your Library directory. Double click on the “Mobile Documents” directory. This is where OS X keeps your iCloud documents. Double click on the directory with the identifier “mobilemusicseq” in its name. Then double click on the “Documents” directory. Lo and behold, you should see the project (yms1) and phrase (yms2) files that were published to iCloud. You’re now free to make a copy of your files. Go ahead. You own them.

That complete directory path, by the way, is:

User/XXX/Library/Mobile Documents/YYY~yamahamusic~mobilemusicseq/Documents/

where XXX is your user name and YYY is some iPad/iCloud cruft.

I believe that you should be able to copy project and phrase files to this directory, too. I haven’t tried this as yet, but you should be able to share songs and phrases this way. I want to share some of my songs and phrases in the future, so please stay tuned.

Hey, that you should get you going with MMS and file transfers.

Finally, an editorial. Hey, Apple! This is where the whole hermetically sealed tablet environment of the iPad breaks down big time. I find using iTunes and iCloud in this way to be a total kludge. A complete sack. Applications that create and edit media — like MMS — need to manipulate and transfer arcane files. Please find a clean way to transfer and share media files! And, please give iCloud Dropbox-like features. It’s really kind of tacky to maintain a closed environment like this. We own our files, not you.